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Tempers, Tension Rise As NASCAR Heads To Short Track Saturday Night

When it comes to hot tempers in NASCAR, that is usually the result of fender-slamming on the short tracks or “The Big One” at a restrictor-plate superspeedway such as Talladega. And when it comes to penalties, Matt Kenseth is usually among the last drivers one would expect to draw the ire of NASCAR inspectors.

But that is the story of NASCAR as it heads into the Toyota Owners 400 on Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway.

First, for the hot tempers.

Several drivers were highly critical of their race teams over team radios during the STP 400 at Kansas Speedway last Sunday while former IZOD IndyCar Series driver and 2005 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year Danica Patrick was irate over fellow driver David Gilliland for the way he was racing her on the track.

Other drivers such as Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer were among those who were not happy with their race cars during the race and let their crew chiefs hear about it on the radio.

While all this was going on, two-time Daytona 500 winner Kenseth was cruising in a Toyota Camry that was the class of the field, driving to his second win of the season. Kenseth led 163 of the 267 laps and defeated Kasey Kahne by .150 of a second.

But NASCAR issued severe penalties Wednesday to Kenseth’s team when a connecting rod in the engine was discovered to be “too light” in post-race technical inspection.

According to NASCAR, “Only magnetic steel connecting rods with a minimum weight of 525.0 grams will be permitted; connecting rod failed to meet the minimum connecting rod weight) of the 2013 rule book.

NASCAR slapped Joe Gibbs Racing crew chief Jason Ratliff with a $200,000 fine and suspended him for the next six NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship races (a period that also includes the non-points NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race) and placed him on probation until Dec. 31.

Also, car owner Joe Gibbs lost 50 championship car owner points and “the first place finish from April 21 at Kansas Speedway will not earn bonus points toward the accumulated aggregate car owner points total after the completion of the first 26 events of the current season and will not be credited towards the eligibility for a car owner Wild Card position; has had the owner’s license for the No. 20 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series car suspended until the completion of the next six championship points events, therefore being ineligible to receive championship car owner points during that period of time.”

That is a huge penalty because it will have an impact on possible seeding for the “Chase for the Championship” after the 26th race of the season at Richmond in September.

Kenseth also lost 50 championship driver points; the Coors Light Pole award from April 19 at Kansas Speedway will not be allowed for eligibility into the 2014 Sprint Unlimited; the first-place finish from April 21 at Kansas Speedway will not earn bonus points toward the accumulated aggregate driver points total after the completion of the first 26 events of the current season and will not be credited toward the eligibility for a driver wild-card position.

These are major penalties with severe implications for the season for Kenseth and JGR.

Toyota Racing Development President Lee White spoke on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio on Wednesday and took responsibility for the light connecting rod that was discovered in post-race technical inspection on the No. 20 Toyota Camry that Kenseth drove to victory.

“This is a total screw-up on our part,” White said. “I can’t even sit here and tell you that we are being falsely accused or anything. We screwed up.

“For years now, ever since we got at the Cup level in the sport, there’s been a minimum weight on connecting rods of 525 grams. We’ve never even come close to violating that minimum. Everybody, of course, manufactures parts and tries to get as close as they can to every minimum in the engine because there is performance to be had. But certainly this is not something that was undertaken here to cheat. It is an unfortunate mistake. We got in a load of connecting rods and, you know, we don’t have enough staff to look at every single, you know, there’s like 20 to 25 different configuration measurements on every single connecting rod. We don’t have the quality control people to check all that.”

According to White, TRD is responsible for engine blocks, heads, front covers, rear covers, manifolds, valley covers and other parts of the engine.

“All that type of stuff we make, we manufacture, we machine,” White said. “We are 100 percent responsible for that. And then in the case of rotating and reciprocating parts – being crankshafts, con rods, pins, pistons, valves, springs, cam shafts, followers, all that other (inaudible) stuff – we rely on vendors outside our company to make those parts. (We’re) blessed that we’re able to go around the world and find some of the best people there are. Our partner in Europe that makes connecting rods for us is renowned as an IOS-level supplier to the top level people in the world, and for years they’ve been absolutely faultless.

“So we have a situation here where something sneaked through that was 2.7 grams – that’s about two balls of cotton – underweight. So 2.7 grams out of 525 minimum. That’s .04 of one percent. And had zero impact on performance. The connecting rod on the very same pin for the opposing cylinder was 529 grams. So it was four grams overweight, so if you average the two it still comes out above legal. But obviously that’s not how NASCAR does it. They took the engine. I’m guessing, I was not there, but they probably picked a rod at random, they weighed it. It was 2.3 or 4 grams underweight. I’m sure they weighed it 10 times to make sure, and then I’m sure they weighed every other rod in the engine and, lo and behold, the other seven are all overweight. It is a total screw-up. And, frankly, we’re not going on a witch hunt. I’m taking full responsibility.

“This is on me.”

But will that be enough to persuade NASCAR to rescind the penalties?

Joe Gibbs Racing plans on appealing the penalty.

This is yet another case of adversity that JGR has had to deal with in the past month. Star driver Denny Hamlin suffered a broken back when he was involved in a hard crash March 24 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., when he was involved in a crash with archrival Joey Logano. Hamlin has missed the last three races and could miss up to another three.

Busch and Kenseth helped boost JGR with victories at Texas and Kansas, respectively, until NASCAR lowered the boom on Kenseth’s team Wednesday.

Bowyer hopes to keep it clean as he heads to Richmond after finishing fifth at his “home track” of Kansas Speedway last Sunday. He drove to victory at Richmond last year and is hoping to have the momentum for the 400-miler under the lights Saturday night.

“Once you win at a racetrack, every time you go back there after that, there's always something you can carry in, and that's confidence headed into that racetrack,” Bowyer said. “We had a solid run, a top-five run at Kansas at home, and a little extra boost of confidence and momentum rolling into a track that's really good for me. So yes, absolutely. I'm looking forward to getting to Richmond. I know the boys are, and they're going to have the racer set on fuel for me.

“Richmond is one of the coolest racetracks on the circuit. It always has been in my mind. I think it's a perfect blend of speed   as a fan you get that sensation of speed   but it's also short-track racing at its best. A fan can see us rooting and gouging and beating and banging on each other and really putting on a good show. I wish there was five more of them across the country. But obviously selfishly that's because I run well there. I grew up racing short tracks. I enjoy the short tracks. I'm relatively good on the short tracks, and that's why I like them.”

Bowyer finished second in last year’s NASCAR Sprint Cup standings and might have challenged Brad Keselowski for the championship if he had not been crashed by four-time Brickyard 400 winner Jeff Gordon at the end of last November’s race at Phoenix International Raceway for “payback” of an earlier incident.

Despite that setback that may have cost him the championship, Bowyer believes he has had a positive carryover from the 2012 season.

“I think we picked up right where we left off last year,” Bowyer said. “Obviously, everybody talks about that sophomore jinx and everything else. It just wasn't the case with us, or the second-place jinx, not really the sophomore jinx. The reason I didn't think so is everybody else that had finished second, Carl Edwards    looking at Carl in particular, he lost by a point. Just the devastation from that can carry over not just within a driver but everybody across the board on the race team.

“That being said, we were first year in with a brand-new team, we finished second in the championship, won three races. There was absolutely nothing to be hanging your head on, holding your head down. That was just    we were all super pumped up and couldn't wait to get started in 2013.

“For us it's just kind of been business as usual. We've had some bumps in the road; we've had some bad luck that we've had to battle through. But nonetheless, we've been able to continue to rebound after a bad weekend and get a good finish.”

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